Polynesian chickens in Peru and other mysteries

Let's hear it for the top ten archaeological discoveries of 2007 -- more clues in the most complicated mystery ever written

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 6, 2009 11:06PM (EST)

Why do I love Archaeology Magazine's "Top 10 Discoveries" of 2007?" Maybe it's because I just finished reading two superb books that masterfully synthesized recent archaeological findings while explaining vast narratives of human existence on the planet: Charles Mann's "1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus" and David W. Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World."

Now I just can't enough of Polynesian chicken bones found in Chile, ancient squash seeds in Peru, and Biblical characters from the Old Testament popping up on cuneiform tablets from the Babylonian city of Sippar.

Each new discovery is another clue that helps solve the mystery of who we are, today, in 2009. So I just want to send a big shout out to each and every archaeologist who spends his or her days counting the number of horse and sheep bones buried in nomad cemeteries 5000 years ago in the southern Ukraine so that I have a better understanding of how the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European influenced my life in Berkeley.

"1491," by the way, is considerably more readable than "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language." Mann is a fluid writer; Anthony interrupts his narrative in nearly every paragraph to back up each segment of his argument with a detailed analysis of burial patterns or Indo-European linguistics or the traces of bit-wear discernible on ancient horse teeth. He is not for the faint of heart.

The most telling point to take away from both books -- especially Mann's -- is how relentlessly the constant accretion of knowledge keeps upsetting older theories and accepted histories. The honest reader is forced to accept that the process is, for all practical purposes, eternal. Whatever we think we know now is not what our children will learn tomorrow. The past may not change, but our understanding of it sure does.

(Incidentally, the recommendation to read "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language" came from a Salon reader in response to last year's post, "Fragments of the Tocharian.")

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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